Trance Dance: The Zar

Comments, questions and responses regarding this particular style of Middle Eastern dance, posted on the medance mailinglist which is publicly archived in the Dancer's Archive.

Shakira's Comments

Part 1

Deep Breath. Ok. Here goes on the Zar question. I have heard several variations on who does Zar, how, and why. One is that it is done by a figure in the position of a shaman, for exorcism and healing. This is the one I find least substantiated, and which may be fakelore. However, I may simply not have found the evidence from reliable sources for it. It may be a transposition from another culture. Wasn't there, in a back issue of Arabesque [Belly dance magazine], an article on Korean dance, exorcism and healing, that had a woman in this central position? And weren't there comparisons made to Zar? (Ah, to have more of THIS sort of article in Arabesque...)

Take number two: this I got from Hamra/Pat Klein, who has evidently since retired. It fits with some of the postings by others, who know whereof they speak and have been posting good stuff! (Thanks Donna, Chala, Zada, Jeff, others! ;-) This second take is that, if someone is disturbed, they may be possessed, and so they are "taken to the house of Zar" (a direct quote) to be exorcised of the possessing spirit and healed. Now, whether there actually is a "house of Zar", at any given time, in any given place, is a question... there may be some such. What looks more likely, from the Habibi (belly dance magazine) article, is that someone conducts such ceremonies on a regular basis, perhaps in their home or apartments, or that a place is set up for such on some regular or in demand basis. The conductor or group of such would likely be the "wise women" referred to.

One word: Someone raised an excellent point about the ambiguous, dual view of older religions and beliefs in the Middle East. If you believe in the Zar and the possession, she's a wise woman. If you happen not to, she's a charlatan, bilking people out of money. To put the different sides bluntly... capeesh?

Take number three: This from Bobby Farrah, which raises other excellent points. According to Bobby, the word "Zar" is from the word for "visitation", referring to being "visited" by a possessing spirit or demon. The example Bobby gave was of a young bride, who, when she gets married, leaves her family and everyone she knows, and goes to live with her husband's family--where perhaps she knows very few people, or no one. In some cases, she can only go out or receive visitiors under very strict circumstances. Upshot: she is cut off from nearly everyone she knew. She begins, understandably, to droop; to be depressed after the "new" wears off?); to behave oddly, and "unlike herself". At this point, Bobby claims, the new family calls in the village fortuneteller, who may prescribe several things, but the eventual reason for why things don't work is that the girl is possessed, and a Zar must be arranged. So, they invite everyone in her new family; all her old friends, everyone in her old family; and a community ritual is held "if you don't buy this, argue with Bobby, not me ;-). She sees everyone, perks up, golly, they think they cured her!

Take numer four: About what has been described by several posters here, and the article in Habibi: the Zar is a ritual among and for women; it is used as a kind of catharsis for perceived troubles, mental/emotional/physical-- they don't/won't necessarily draw the lines we do; it is usually done by a female leader, who occupies a "wisewoman" role of some sort (however dubious depending on the surrounding opinions of Zar and its associated beliefs); it is often (though per the article in Habibi, not always) women of the same village, who know each other.

Though acutally, come to think of it, there was a Zar ceremony by men, for men, described by one G. Patrick Abbott, way back in an old issue of... maybe Jareeda [belly dance magazine].

Anyhow: The Zar ceremony will include some sort of designation of the person who is the focus at the present, who is receiving the exorcism--perhaps purification by incense, perhaps sitting in the center on a particular mat, etc.--though the others may join with her in movement and milder forms of trance. There usually is drumming, usually the ayub rhythm, starting slowly and becoming more and more intense; other women may accompany this on other instruments.

There are various movements common; they are individualized, as the woman moves and as the music moves her, as you would suspect.

However, a very common one is the flinging of the head and hair, possibly near the end, possibly growing wilder and wilder until there is total collapse. Bobby's explanation for this one ws that the last place the spirit holds on is to the ends of the hair. This is where it clings before finally being thrown off and thrown out.

Part 2

Let me point out a few things from a medical/research background, something I've had some access to. ;-) (4 years of med school...) No, it's not about body position--for once, although I DO teach Zar, and I WILL, unlike turkish drop, teach it to classes, drawing on my Alexander Technique background to teach "safe Zar".

What I want to say, instead, is that perhaps our culture shouldn't dismiss Zar as mere "primitive superstition". I'm going to use some of our own medical/research knowledge to argue against this!

For one, consider: what's a common "prescription" for alleviating everything from anger to stress to PMS? Generating some endorphins, right? Endorphins are biochemical "feel good" compounds. Though they are present in tiny trace amounts in the brain, and we can't see them, we believe in them. ;-) All right. So...what might a very energetic Zar (especially of the type Bobby describes, which is both religious ceremony and community hoe-down, as it were ;-) ) produce? Well, endorphins....

I also want to refer people to the research of Felicitas Goodman, who has done work on trance. She has actually had folks blood chemistry and brain waves monitored during trance. ONE DISTINCTION: most forms of Shamanic trance, and Zar, are HYPERAROUSAL TRANCES. These are very distinct from the meditative trances of self-hypnosis, many yogic trances, etc. I can't recall Felicitas' particulars well enough to quote them anymore, but there ARE changes in blood chemistry and brain waves. (I believe the possession trances of voudoun and lucumi are hyperarousal trances as well--but with rather different results, often the *intent* to *evoke* possession...but this is not my area; check with a respected expert.)

One thing common to hyperarousal trances is boosted endorphins, boosted immune system (however temporarily), boosted energy (in trance, even if there is collapse after it), and "highs" or feelings of well-being (even when energy is gone). There could be other associated positive effects--just as there are with "exercise highs" or "runner's highs". Blocking of pain is also common. This may persist longer than the trance.

So...before we dismiss those "primitive folks"...maybe we should consider: could they have been onto a valid "medicine", at least in part? At least symptomatically?

I like to describe Zar as one of the original methods of holistic healing...

Another note I might add. From Bobby, I picked up that all Zar does not have to be anguish. I had felt this in my personal work with Zar--the high at the end, which I mentioned above--but Bobby pointed out that it could transform into ecstatic trance.

Now I'd like to see if I can scare up Diane Chidester who is VERY knowledgeable on the subject of Zar. I believe she did either thesis work or a paper on Zar. She was an invaluable source of information on the subject, for me. She was where I got a good bit of the info I have, that others have echoed. Diance (formerly with Orientale Expressions of the Chapel Hill area, an excellent troupe, and now doing grad work in SC) also told me that often the women did NOT want to entirely exorcise the controlling spirit. The spirit gave them certain kinds of "immunity". For instance, the woman dared not make certain remarks to her husband; but if it were the remark of the possessing spirit--something "just came over her and she said that"--it was not her fault, and punishing her would do no good; the control of the spirit had to be "reduced" (through a Zar) or the spirit "placated". (I.e., the spirit wants something new and red...) Diane also recommended a book, "Wombs and Alien Spirits". I'm hoping my comments will draw our busy Zar scholar onto the net, where she can speak to particulars...

So you might check that book, for Zar in particular, or Diane's work. You might look up Felicitas Goodman's work for the effects of trance (not necessarily trance dance) in particular. And you might check the work of one Erika Bourguignon (sp? I'll have to look...) for works on trance dances of various sorts, in hunter-gatherer vs. agrarian cultures in particular.

Part 3

My personal usage of Zar...

I think there is a place for Zar for the soloist, the group, the classroom, the scholar with textbook. While I see Suraya Hilal's point about not teaching Zar to a non-cohesive group, I think there is both traditional evidence (regularly conducted Zar ceremonies in the Middle East, that strangers visiting may participate in--per Habibi article and vaguer sources) and reason to consider doing so.

A Zar performed by a group of people WILL build bonds--or it's very likely to. Just as the circle dance Andrea Deagon had us do at the beginning of her class in Cincinnati, TO build group bonds. It's rather like a sweat lodge ceremony--if you don't feel a connection to the other people in the beginning, you may very well before it's over. And it may be an odd and very deep connection...Zar and sweat lodge are, as Andrea puts it, "liminal experiences".

So, I'd argue for *careful use* of Zar *performed* (not staged) as a group. Knowing what it may do. I think it could be used as a healing/invigorating/chase out the negative with activity and raise the positive kind of thing. (Not that Zar can't be staged...just, I think you can do more than stage it, if you do your research and are *careful* and have good, positive reasons.)

One doesn't have to believe in literal ;-) demons or possessing spirits. Isn't it a kind of "possession" when we fixate on a negative experience?

I personally learned and began doing Zar back in...oh, '78 or so. Maybe '79. I do it in performance, and I used to do it in med school when the frustration and anger got too high.

In performance, I always do it "for real"--sometimes not very deeply, if it ends a drum solo (and yes, Virginia, I once went from a Zar head spin-the fast, wild finale of the Zar--into a Turkish drop as was spontaneous... ;-) and yes, I could get up and walk away after... ;-) ) and is short.

However, my best experiences have been working with live drummers, particularly, of late, Zada and her band. I am one of those people who goes into trance easily when I want to. I've done it so much that I can simply "go there". And my experiences "just letting go" and doing whatever follows have been so positive--I've gotten such good feedback--tht I think it's really helped me develop that ability (nothing like positive feedback, is there, ladies and gents?). Almost as soon as the Zar starts there is a mood...and it is different every time. Often--mostly--it builds up slowly. First the drum moves me...the hard beat jerks the body, in small movements. Then I begin to know what it time, it was anger--unprincipled teachers were abusing their students. So I exorcised *them* ;-) and my feelings about them...and maybe (if you believe in that sort of thing) it broke their power to hurt those students. For a while, at least. So I wished it. Another time it was wild joy. Another time it was the pain of friends, as if I were the vessel for it. I love working with live drumming--it's really unsatisfactory to make your emotional journey fit the timespan of a tape ;-)--because I can go where I need to go, and finish when I know the finish is. It usually does become clear to me when I'm "done".

For me, it's sometimes difficult to dance after Zar--especially a choreography. Because it's "real" to me, I don't end up in the same emotional place as I was before. And my energies are different. Something to think about.

By the way, sonically-induced trances have a particular set of rhythms. Or maybe I should have said, there are particular rhythms that will, if allowed, induce trance. The ayoub is one of them...

When I first began dancing, I felt magic. I felt the "high"--it came naturally to me. To my amazement (I STANK at most things in physed class), I could do...almost anything. It began to feel as if I had stepped into a magic world or transformed into something other than what others saw me as. And when I actually began to improvise and dance (which was very soon), the high came very fast. Amaya asked once if people believed there was magic in the dance. And her own conclusion, for herself, was that there are some moments, there are some nights, that are. Nights when the music moves slower than you, when it's as if you have control of time, when you can do fantastic things suddently that you couldn't before, when you know what an unknown piece of music the band plays is going to do without ever having heard a version of it, when you feel as if you are the focus through which the energies of the band, the audience, the music, and other souls are all pouring.

That's the feeling of ecstatic trance. Of being composed of more than matter; to me it feels like being composed of 70% pure energy, only 30% matter. (By the way, look up Amaya's words in that old issue, in her "star talk" column; the perceptions above are mine, she says it very well.)

I had the same feeling in Felicitas' Goodman's class.

So you see, you may not really need particular.

I was also a runner; I also learned therapeutic hypnosis and self-hypnosis in med school. (It's a fallacy, bu the way, that anyone can really MAKE you do anything you're resistant to, *really* resistant to, under hypnosis. And, it might be interesting to know, that the best hypnotic subjects are people who are strong-willed and confident enough to be able to resist it thoroughly-- but who can also make the through-and-through decision to drop their guard and let go.)

So, you see, I came ready for Zar. ;-) But, if you love it, and it doesn't come easy at first, find your own way in. Staged, performance, adapted ritual, actual ritual, traditional movements, your own movements--find your own way "in", just keep learning and try to be "respectful" of the original culture. Not much real power comes from mockery or mere feelings of superiority...


Last Modified: 15 Jun 1997
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